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Less time for life-term inmates?
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SACRAMENTO  (AP) — California has agreed to change its policy for considering when murderers and others serving life sentences should be eligible for parole, though corrections experts differed Tuesday on whether the change could lead to shorter prison terms for thousands of inmates.

The state agreed to the shift under a legal settlement approved Monday by state Court of Appeal Justice J. Anthony Kline in San Francisco. The deal calls for the state Board of Parole Hearings to more quickly set the minimum time that should be served before an inmate is released.

The minimum time is not binding on parole decisions but in effect sets a guideline for how much time a person who committed a particular crime ought to typically serve. Previously the parole board generally waited to set minimum terms until after the board determined an inmate was suitable for parole. Now the board is agreeing to set the minimum term at the inmate's first parole hearing.

Inmates still would have to establish that they no longer are a public danger before a parole date is set, board spokesman Luis Patino said.

The change will affect about 35,000 inmates serving life terms with the possibility of parole. They include not only murderers but those convicted of serious crimes like kidnapping, and career criminals convicted of a third strike. Together, they make up about a quarter of California's prison population.

The Los Angeles Times on Tuesday cited a Stanford study released in 2011 found that murderers who were eligible for parole after serving 16 years served an average of 27 years behind bars.

The change could lead to earlier paroles that eventually would help the state comply with federal judges' orders to reduce prison crowding, attorney Jon Streeter said Tuesday.

Streeter was appointed to represent Roy Butler, a 46-year-old inmate at Salinas Valley State Prison who was sentenced to 15 years to life for a 1987 murder. After he was repeatedly denied parole for a decade, Butler challenged the board's current practices on the grounds that they lead to unconstitutional excessive punishment.

"We're talking a change that could have a beneficial effect for thousands of inmates who up to now have had no idea when, if ever, they might have a chance for parole," Streeter said. However, he said it is unclear how many might actually be released earlier than they would have been without the agreement.

Christine Ward, executive director of the Sacramento-based Crime Victims Action Alliance, said the policy change won't have much practical effect unless the minimum terms create pressure on parole commissioners to speed up releases.

"Whether or not their earliest release date was 13 years after their sentence or 20 zillion years, it doesn't matter if the board still deems them to be a risk to public safety," she said. "If that starts playing into their decision, then we have a huge problem with the board."

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the conservative Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, also said it is too soon to say what, if any, effect the change might have.

Parole board Executive Officer Jennifer Shaffer said in a statement that the board was happy to resolve the lawsuit by calculating inmates' minimum sentences earlier in the process. The change will result in a more open parole process, she said.

The settlement requires the state to begin the new policy after the judge decides the most recent appeal of Butler, who has been refused parole five times.

Until his court challenge, the state had been acting under a 2002 California Supreme Court decision that held the parole board was under no obligation to calculate minimum terms.

When it did set minimum terms, the board frequently found that they had long since been exceeded, Streeter said.

Butler, for instance, was calculated to have a minimum term as low as 16 years, Streeter said, yet he has served 26 years in prison.

Butler had a nonviolent history, though he served six months in juvenile hall for burglary and receiving stolen property, according to court documents.

He was convicted of second-degree murder for helping plan what turned into the fatal 1987 assault on Richard Davis, who he thought was routinely beating a woman.

"This is a guy who should have been let out a decade ago," Streeter said. "There are thousands of guys like him."